UPDATE: On Thursday, August 4, the Oregon Department of Forestry rescinded the wildfire risk map after complaints from rural Oregon residents that the map increased homeowners’ insurance premiums for those in areas labeled high risk. With thousands of property risk appeals filed to the forestry department, Republican lawmakers asserted the department is under capacity to adequately handle people’s concerns.
In a statement issued by Cal Mukumoto, director of the Oregon Department of Forestry, “[The department has] received specific feedback from nearly 2,000 Oregonians that has helped us understand the key areas of concern related to risk classification. We have a window of opportunity before the new codes go into effect to take some immediate steps toward addressing those concerns, and we will be taking full advantage of the opportunity.”New fire-hardening building codes are still expected to go into effect in high-risk wildfire areas next spring.
Wildfires pose a serious threat to rural communities in Oregon, according to a new statewide risk assessment map, and property owners in the highest risk areas will soon be required to follow new building codes to protect their homes.
The map, released in late June by the Oregon Department of Forestry, is a product of Senate Bill 762, which funnels over $220 million to state agencies to advance wildfire protection and invest in landscape resiliency. The bill seeks to address some of the issues caused by fire seasons that are getting longer and more destructive due to climate change, according to research from Oregon State University. The state’s new wildfire risk map is one of the first actions to come out of the bill, which was passed in 2021.
The areas shown on the map to have the highest wildfire risk are in the central, southern, and eastern parts of the state, in and around the Cascade, Siskiyou, and Blue mountain ranges, respectively. According to research from the U.S. Forest Service, rural towns in steep areas with few evacuation roads are often the most vulnerable.
Over half the state’s lands are placed under these high-risk categories.
“It freaks people out when they look at that statewide map and see 57% [of land] in high or extreme risk, but a huge chunk of that is federal land so it has no homes on it,” said Christopher Dunn, an assistant professor in the Forest Engineering, Resources & Management Department at Oregon State University and one of the key researchers on the wildfire risk map. “It just makes the map look really aggressive.”
One of the features included in the map is wildland-urban interface, which is the area where wildland vegetation and homes meet. Close contact between natural lands with flammable vegetation and human structures increases the risk of wildfires destroying homes and endangering people.
Approximately 120,000 tax lots – privately-owned land held by individuals – are in these areas of high or extreme risk and wildland-urban interface, according to Dunn. This totals to about 8% of all the lots in Oregon, but not every lot has a structure built on it, Dunn said. About 80,000 of the 120,000 tax lots in high-risk areas have structures that would be threatened in the event of a wildfire.
The Oregon Department of Forestry is required to send notification letters to property owners in these high and extreme risk categories. People who rent their homes in high-risk areas are not being notified of their risk, but the state has encouraged property owners to inform tenants of the risk, according to Derek Gasperini, public affairs officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Two different letters were sent out in mid-July to two groups of property owners, Gasperini said. One of the letters was sent to people who own properties in high to extreme-risk areas simply to inform them of this categorization.
The other letter was sent to property owners in high to extreme-risk areas whose properties also reside in a wildland-urban interface. For lots with this categorization, any new construction, major repair, or remodeling affecting the exterior of a structure would be required to meet new building standards being developed by the Oregon Building Codes Division.
“General maintenance and repairs would not trigger the new code standards,” said Mark Peterson, public information and communications director for the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services. “Building codes are not applied retroactively in Oregon, and the initial designation of being in an impacted area will not require any immediate action by a homeowner to comply with the new code.”
Only if a property owner builds new construction or remodels their property would they be required to incorporate new fire-hardening building standards.
The Building Codes Division is working on a tool with Oregon State University to identify areas where fire hardening building standards need to be enforced, based on information from the wildfire risk map, according to Peterson. These new building codes will become mandatory on April 1, 2023.
A grant program in the works will allow property owners to apply for funds to help with defensible space projects, according to Alison Green, public affairs director for the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office. “We’re looking at late fall, early winter to roll those [grants] out to local communities,” Green said. “This will kind of be in conjunction with when the [building codes] are codified and adopted.
If property owners disagree with their wildfire-risk classification, they can appeal until September 21, 2022. But that won’t ensure exemption.
“Because the wildfire risk is calculated on a combination of climate, weather, topography, and vegetation, there are some factors that are going to influence potential fire behavior that just can’t be overcome by anything that a landowner does,” Gasperini said.
“There is a misunderstanding [among property owners] that if I do the defensible space actions, it will reduce my risk category,” Gasperini said. “It certainly will reduce the risk to a home, to a structure, that sort of thing, but it doesn’t reduce the risk that that property tax lot parcel may have a wildfire event in their geographical area. So while it will protect them, it doesn’t necessarily reduce the way that risk is categorized for the map.”
Both the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office and the Oregon Department of Forestry are holding virtual and in-person town halls across the state to inform people of their risks and answer questions.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that a state grant program in the works would support property owners’ efforts to adapt to new building codes. The grant program, instead, will support projects to create defensible space around structures. The Daily Yonder regrets the error.